SCA 1: One for the people

There is something about the concept of open government that a few officials in California just can’t seem to grasp. The concept is a familiar one to students of history: In this country, it is supposed to be “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” To that end, the people expect government records and public-decision making to be open to the public and to stay open.

Working in the media in Sacramento, we see an ignorance of the concept on a weekly basis. Some government employees and agency heads see governance as their business, and openness somehow becomes an annoyance. Beyond that, we also see a trend in which government officials simply deny access to us and other citizens without bothering to say why. It becomes the job of the citizen or the media to make a case, or possibly go to court, to prove that an arbitrary, secret government is wrong.

Withholding information from the public isn’t good policy in the long run. It makes people even more suspicious and distrustful of government.

So, we have become strong supporters of Senate Constitutional Amendment 1 (SCA 1), legislation that would place a proposed change on the ballot to allow voters to strengthen the public’s right to access to government deliberations and records.

SCA 1 requires that a government agency state a clear and understandable reason why secrecy is necessary and why citizens must be kept from information and out of deliberative meetings. The burden would be on government to show specific harm.

While assuring an open government, the amendment would protect information about private individuals, such as health records and financial information, unless it relates to qualifications for elective or appointive office in the government.

A similar proposal last year never made it out of the Legislature, but this version is more streamlined and specific. It also has more political backing and got out of committee with unanimous positive votes.

State legislators should consider a recent poll that showed that 67 percent of the citizens favored the amendment. This is not a partisan issue, but a public one. The Legislature is supposedly a servant of the people, so it should vote for the citizens when SCA 1 comes up for a full vote. Passage would ensure that voters have the last word on this necessary adjustment to our state constitution.

We are in a position to hear complaints from public officials and politicians that these sunshine laws are often time-consuming and costly—that our representatives have more important work to do than burn up the copying machine or listen to an activist railing about an issue.

Yes, democracy can be an inconvenient pain. But scrutiny by the people is the best check on abuses of power. Sorry, but this work has to be done, for all of us.